At shortly past 5 a.m. on workdays, Jeff Zgonina parks his Ford F-350 pickup in the Houston Texans' players lot outside Reliant Stadium. He enters the building by tapping an access code into a backdoor keypad, walks into the locker room in darkness and slides the folding chair out of his dressing cubicle, the professional athlete's equivalent of punching a time clock. "When everybody else comes to work here," says assistant trainer John Ishop, "Jeff's chair is already out." A routine unfolds: hot tub, weight room, breakfast (strawberries, pineapple and cottage cheese). Before 7 he's sitting in the equipment room, busting stones with the help and watching teammates arrive.
Zgonina is 39, the second-oldest nonkicker in the NFL. The oldest is Brett Favre, and on that sliver of common ground the resemblance ends. Zgonina has played 17 seasons on the interior defensive line and special teams for eight franchises, including five years with the Rams, four with the Dolphins and seven days—during a bye week, no less—with the Raiders in October 1998. He has started just 63 of his career 208 games, and he has never been paid more than the NFL minimum (currently $860,000) for a season's work. Few players have endured more kickoff return-team collisions, of which, says Zgonina, "half the time you just get run over by a missile."
The NFL is larger than life, an unscripted weekly drama with celebrity superhero stars. You know their names. But if they are the face of the sport, Zgonina is the soul. He is a nearly middle-aged man with a 6'2", 290-pound body shaped like a refrigerator on feet, a rare unselfish passion and a throwback philosophy that NFL status should be earned rather than bestowed on draft day. He has lived in hotels for entire seasons when he barely played a down, and he has been on the field for the final snap of a Super Bowl victory.
Three times Zgonina has been cut from rosters at the end of training camp, and at least a half-dozen other times he has survived that last cut while waiting by the phone. "A lot of guys feel like they're going to play forever," says Zach Thomas, the five-time All-Pro linebacker who played with Zgonina in Miami from 2003 to '06. "Jeff always feels like the team is going to cut him. He doesn't take the game for granted for one day." Zgonina has never been a star, but he has left deep footprints in the locker room of every team for which he has played, providing a heavy dose of daily professionalism and demanding the same from his peers. He has officially missed one game in 17 years due to injury, a broken finger in the last week of 1997.
"Football is full of hard-asses," says Kevin Carter, a former All-Pro defensive lineman who played with Zgonina for five years in St. Louis and Miami. "Some guys are hard-asses because they're overly talented. Some guys because they've had some difficult experience in life. And others are hard-asses because they know what it's like to do all the dirty work. Jeff is a hard-ass in that respect because he had to go through a lot just to play this game. But he is also the most salt-of-the-earth guy I've ever known."
In his 17th autumn, Zgonina (pronounced ska-NEE-na) is getting 20 to 30 snaps a game at the nose and defensive tackle for Houston, alongside the likes of Amobi Okoye, who was born during Zgonina's junior year at Carmel High in the Chicago suburbs. Texans general manager Rick Smith, a friend of Zgonina's since they were teammates at Purdue two decades ago, signed him to a two-year contract in 2007 but initially wasn't going to bring him back for '09. "I didn't think he could make our team," says Smith, "and I didn't want to have to cut him."
Throughout the off-season, Zgonina pestered Smith about coming back. "Rick told me he didn't want to cut me," says Zgonina. "I told him, 'You think if you cut me we won't be friends anymore? It's business; if anybody understands that, it's me. All I'm asking is, if you cut me, take me out and do it over a beer.' In the meantime I'll play all the preseason games and I'm on tape for 31 other teams to see."
Not that Zgonina was full of confidence. He would run and train in the summer heat—sometimes alongside his wife, Cammie—and ask himself, What am I doing? Maybe it's time for a new chapter. Nine years ago Zgonina and Maury Tate, a former calf roper, started a company that raises bucking bulls for rodeos. (The company is called The "Mo" Betta Bull Company because Tate already owned a handmade Western shirt company called the "Mo" Betta Clothing Company, whose products have been worn by Garth Brooks.) They own more than 100 bulls for competing and breeding. Maybe it was time to run full time with the bulls.
But when defensive tackle Travis Johnson was slow to recover from hernia surgery (he was eventually traded), Houston needed a body, and Smith signed Zgonina on the eve of training camp. "I told Jeff he was going to have to take every rep in practice and play in the fourth quarter of preseason games, which you just don't do with a veteran player," says Smith. "Of course, once he gets in here he's one of those guys who is almost impossible to cut."
Zgonina wasn't so sure. His mother, Donna, comes to most of his games, and before the preseason finale, at Tampa Bay on Sept. 4, Jeff called and said, "Mom, this might be the last time you watch me play." A day later, as the Texans made their final cuts, Zgonina was grocery shopping with Cammie, and their children, daughter Bailey, 6, and son Carter, 3. Defensive line coach Bill Kollar—who recruited Zgonina to Purdue as a high school senior—called Jeff's cellphone and said, "Just be here tomorrow."